Insanity and Public Opinion
Not long ago, the Maryland mother who pushed her dead toddler in a swing for two days was found not criminally responsible for her behavior. In 2015, Terry J. Sedlacek, the man who walked into a church in Madison County, Illinois in 2009 and shot pastor Fred Winters dead during the Sunday morning service, was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
There are few issues more controversial than that of the insanity defense in the area of criminal law.
It is a popularly held assumption that when a person commits a crime, they have done so for rational reasons, and their actions are the result of their own free will. Therefore, they must be deserving of punishment, and any other consequences warranted by their actions.
But what if there are some offenders who are so mentally disturbed, so irrational in their behavior, and so unable to control themselves, that to impose criminal liability upon them would be criminal in and of itself?
While academic types have tended to be more supportive of the insanity defense, the public at large has expressed ambivalence, and often outrage over it. Popular opinion about the insanity defense is no doubt based largely on the extensive media coverage that inevitably accompanies such trials.
High profile cases like that of John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Reagan; Lorena Bobbitt, who cut off her husband’s penis; Jeffrey Dahmer, who was charged with killing 13 people; and James Holmes, who stood trial for a mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater, have played a substantial role in fostering this misperception.
On the one hand such publicity is good; it encourages people to examine the moral premises underlying our criminal justice system. But on the other hand, it also appears to have given a somewhat distorted view of the nature of the insanity defense.
Common Misconceptions About the Insanity Defense
There are numerous incorrect assumptions about the insanity defense, including:
- A large number of defendants plead insanity.
- Defendants who plead insanity are successful when they raise this defense due to the misconception that the defendant and their expert witnesses are able to deceive “unsophisticated” juries.
- Those who are found not guilty by reason of insanity are released upon their acquittal, or shortly thereafter.
- Even after their release they are still extremely dangerous.
The Truth About the Insanity Defense
According to two different surveys, most citizens believe the insanity defense is raised in approximately one third of all felony cases, and that when it is raised it is successful 30% of the time. However, these estimates could not be more wrong.
Studies conducted in Missouri, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia indicate that the frequency of defendants pursuing an insanity defense is extremely low, occurring in 0.1% to 0.5% of felony cases.
…the insanity defense is rarely successful
Data on the success rate of the defense also suggests that the insanity defense is rarely successful. Nationally, it is estimated that the defense prevails in one out of every four cases in which it is raised.
What this really means is that for every 1000 defendants charged with a felony, only one will be adjudicated not guilty by reason of insanity. Therefore, it is safe to say that the insanity defense fails far more often than it succeeds.
Only one out of every 1000 defendants accused of a felony will be found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Interestingly, most insanity acquittals do not even make it to trial. Approximately 70% are the result of some type of plea agreement because both sides agreed that the defendant was so mentally ill that he or she should be hospitalized rather than convicted and imprisoned.
What Happens To A Defendant Found NGRI?
Contrary to the common assumption that being found NGRI means the person “got away with it,” an insanity acquittal is not a ticket home. Most states place no limit on the amount of time an individual deemed not criminally responsible can spend in confinement.
As long the person continues to meet the criteria for commitment, they will remain hospitalized. Studies that compare the length of hospitalization for persons found NGRI to the length of imprisonment for felons showed mixed results.
an insanity acquittal is not a ticket home.
Some states have no appreciable difference in the length of confinement between convicted felons and those acquitted NGRI. While others, like New York, show insanity acquittees spending on average two and a half years longer in confinement than their matched felony convicted counterparts.
Still others, like Georgia, found this ratio reversed, with felons remaining confined for twice as long as those found NGRI. However, none of the studies showed that the insanity defense is a Get Out of Jail Free card, or a reason for short-term confinement when the charges are serious.
Insanity and Dangerousness
The most accurate predictor of violence is the number and nature of previous violent offenses, not mental illness.
research has failed to show is that insanity acquittees are somehow more dangerous than convicted felons
Studies comparing recidivism rates of individuals found NGRI showed that they are less likely as a group to have recidivating members than felons as a group. However, other studies have shown that the two groups are about even in terms of the rate of recidivism.
people found not guilty by reason of insanity are not ‘unusually’ violent.
What the research has failed to show is that insanity acquittees are somehow more dangerous than convicted felons. In other words, people found to be not guilty by reason of insanity are not “unusually” violent.
What An Insanity Verdict Really Means
First, it means that the defendant is part of a very rare group – roughly one in 1000 felons.
Second, it means that he or she more than likely became that one in 1000 because experts for both the defense and the prosecution agreed that the defendant suffered from a mental disease or defect.
Third, that person will remain confined in a locked facility, one that more closely resembles a jail than a hospital, for as long as it is deemed necessary, even if that length of stay exceeds the sentence they would have received had they just been found guilty.
And finally, it means that if and when that person is released from the hospital, they are likely to be less dangerous, or at least no more dangerous, than a felon convicted of the same offense.